On Thursday morning, June 18, I saw on the calendar that the Syriac Orthodox Church remembered the feast day of St. Moses the Abyssinian. This caught my eye especially because of the week the Axia Women Board was praying the Canon of Reconciliation every night. When I looked further, I realized that this was another name for St. Moses the Ethiopian or St. Moses the Black. I later discovered that “Abyssinian” is a former name of Ethiopia. However, this was not the first time I have heard of his name. I recall hearing his name mentioned when I was at seminary. In my first year, the students of St. Moses the Black joined to pray the Canon of Reconciliation every Wednesday afternoon. I was unfamiliar with the Saint and did not join my classmates. But two years later, when I heard Dr. Carla Thomas and others chant the canon, it was beautiful, and I wish I had taken the opportunity to pray it with my classmates. I vowed to learn more about St. Moses.
In the Syriac Church he is also known as the Strong Saint Abba Moses, St. Moses the Ethiopian or St. Moses the Black.
St Moses lived in the fourth century. In the book “Life of our Holy Father Moses the Ethiopian,” it states, “The blessed Moses was, in fact, of Ethiopian nationality and completely black in color.” Some believe he may have been born 325 AD and died around or before 400 AD.
There are three parts to his story, his life of sin, his turning point, and his leadership.
The first part is that he lived a life of sin. He began his life as a slave of a high ranking government official. However, he was not very obedient to his master. The master could not disciple him, and so he let him go.
After he gained his freedom, did he turn a fresh leaf and become good? Unfortunately, no. Under his new life, he lived a life of crime. With his leadership skills, he became the leader of 70 bandits.
One account of him shows him to be strong and vengeful. Because of a failed mission, he was angry with the shepherd. He swam across the Nile River to find the shepherd, but he couldn’t find him. So he took the four best rams and went back to his town.
Now, we come to the second part of his life, his turning point. Somehow St. Moses turns his life around. He ends up at a monastery and repents of all his deeds. He takes up a cell and lives an ascetic life.
Is his story over? No, far from it.
Even though he gave up his life of sin, he was still being attacked and plagued by the demons. It is so bad that he goes to the monastery’s head to seek Monk Isidore for advice. Monk Isidore tells him to come at sunrise to his cell, and they go up on the roof. Monk Isidore says to him, “‘See, the light only gradually drives away the darkness. So it is with the soul.’ And [St.] Moses went away consoled and strengthened to resume his program of asceticism, hard manual work, serving the brethren in humble tasks, persevering prayer.”
Thus, we can see St Moses becoming an athlete. Athletes determine what they need to do to win the race. For Christian athletes, we need to fast, pray, meditate on the Word and do good works. St. Moses did all and more. He ate very little during the day and prayed all day.
Even though he did these things - when St Moses slept, he would have evil dreams. Monk Isidore told him, “These lead you into error because you have not turned away your heart from the likes of them. Give your heart to vigil and careful prayer and you will be free from them.”
Thus, St. Moses makes a promise to God not to sleep. He did this for seven years and stood with his eyes opened - praying and keeping vigil. After he completed the prayers in the night, he also did good works by filling the water pails of the older monks since the water well was far. One night St Moses fell at the well and was found the next morning by another monk.
Monk Isidore tells him to rest. “Rest yourself, O Moses. Do not trouble yourself against the devils, and do not seek to make attacks on them. There is moderation in everything, even in the works of ascetic life.” Then Monk Isidore prayed over him and the demons left. Monk Isidore stressed that it’s not because you have overcome the devils, but it’s God’s grace.
One time, four thieves came to St Moses. St Moses, who fasted all week, captured the four thieves, brought them to the monastery elders, and asked what he should do. Through St Moses’ example, the four thieves also confessed and repented.
Last, his leadership of the monastic community. Later on, St Moses becomes ordained as a priest with the name of Moses. Monk Isidore leaves the monastery, and St Moses is chosen to be the head of the monastery. St Moses then leads seventy monks and many seek him for guidance.
One day St Moses told the monks that some thieves would come to the monastery. Others asked what to do. He told them to leave and that he would stay. However, seven monks also remained with him. The infidels killed St. Moses and six other monks. One monk who was afraid saw seven crowns placed on the heads of the others.
What can we learn?
- St Moses was a slave. We are slaves to sin. How many times do we want to do good - but the chains of sin shackle us. We are all sinners.
- God loves all people - even the most hardened criminal. He will work in that person’s life as we see in the life of St Moses. God made each person in his image. God seeks the missing sheep as he sought for St Moses.
- The conversion of St Moses from a life of sin to holiness required repentance and change. It’s called Metanoia, a change. Repentance is when you turn your life around, but not in a circle but as in a line pointing to God.
- Even though he repented, his temptations still attacked him. St Moses struggled with his past life. His Grace Bishop Seraphim (Coptic Bishop of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii) mentions that repentance is the beginning of the struggle. Many of us go to Confession and think that’s it! However, it is just the beginning. We have to battle against the temptations constantly.
- We learn from St Moses the importance of having a spiritual father. St. Moses sought his spiritual father, Monk Isidore, for guidance. The Church provides spiritual fathers and mothers to help us and guide us. Spiritual fathers and mothers are like coaches to help us athletes win the race to God.
- St. Moses’s reformed life became a witness to others. His life example brought others to God.
- Finally, pray for your monastics (men and women). Just because they take on the spiritual challenges does not mean they are living high spiritual lives. As we have seen, the demons will tempt anyone.
Learning the life of the saint may be fun, but it is also edifying. There is something in the lives of the saints that we can take back and incorporate in our lives. Knowing that we have to continue to struggle in our cells at home, we can take comfort in seeing St. Moses being victorious. The life of St. Moses offers us a view of how God saved a man and made him worthy.
May the prayers of St Moses be with us and in our struggle.
Asha Mathai is acting vice president of Axia Women and a student at St. Vladimir's Seminary.